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On a recent trip to San Francisco, I rediscovered what a great town it is for walking. The weather was miserable on the day of my arrival, reminding me of Mark Twain's quote that "the coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco." Thankfully, the rest of my week there was sunny and gorgeous.

From my hotel near Union Square I was easily able to explore several unique, disparate sections of the city. I also took three of the excellent free walking tours given by the city through sfcityguides.org.

Chinatown, just a few blocks from Union Square, is a walker’s paradise. On one of the walking tours, I discovered things about Chinatown I never would have known otherwise. We veered off the touristy Grant Street to explore the “real” Chinatown along the side streets. In an obscure alley, we were shown the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and discovered that fortune cookies were not even invented in China, but here in the U.S. – possibly by Makoto Hagiwara, the Japanese immigrant who designed the Japanese Tea Gardens.

The former Chinese Telephone Exchange is the oldest Oriental-style building in the quarter with its striking three tiers. Now the Bank of Canton, it was a favored location for Chinatown residents to call the home country in the first half of the 20th century. We also entered a Buddhist temple and explored several local businesses.

On the 1906 Earthquake and Fire Tour, we were shown the inside of the palatial Palace Hotel, at one time the largest hotel in the Western U.S. before it was destroyed in 1906. Caruso was staying there during the earthquake and vowed afterward to never return to San Francisco. The hotel was rebuilt in 1909. Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street was a meeting place for locals after the quake, many of whom put notices on the fountain to try to locate missing loved ones. It was recently refurbished to its 1875 appearance.

We were also provided interesting, little-known tidbits of historical information, such as that the Italian immigrants living on Telegraph Hill banded together to help save their neighborhood from the fire by pouring the barrels of wine they kept in their cellars over the flames after the water main broke.

The third walking tour I took was in the previously mentioned Japanese Tea Gardens, one of my favorite spots in the city, an oasis of peace and serenity. All three of the walking tours were excellent. The tours covered the history of the city in an interesting and informative way.

The volunteer tour guides are mostly retired locals who obviously have a great deal of love for and knowledge of their hometown. Donations afterward are appreciated, but not required.

I also took my own “tour-free” walks throughout the city. One of my favorites started at Haight-Ashbury and continued through Golden Gate Park. I passed the charming Conservatory of Flowers to explore one of my favorite city parks in the country.

A friend I met up with to visit Alcatraz walked from Union Square through Chinatown and North Beach up to Coit Tower with her family, including a 6-year-old girl. This is a wonderful day hike that can be enjoyed by anyone in moderate physical condition. From there, one has a spectacular 360-degree view from which to admire this amazing city.

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Matthew Hudson June 9, 2010 @ 4:33 p.m.

Great stuff! I am excited to go to San Fran now!


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